Recent protests by some public estate tenants to press the Housing Authority for more preferential terms to help them buy their rental units under its flat-sale scheme have come as something of a surprise. To those private home owners who are struggling to pay monthly mortgage instalments and bills for management fees and property rates, these protests show the extent of the public tenants' ignorance of the responsibilities of being a property owner. In Hong Kong, where the Government often talks about reasonable allocation of public resources to help those most in need, it is a puzzle why those already living in subsidised housing are given more and more assistance to help them fulfil their housing needs. The Housing Authority launched the Tenant Purchase Scheme in January, putting on offer this year 26,800 of its rental units for tenants on six estates - namely Cheung On (Tsing Yi), Fung Tak (Wong Tai Sin), Wah Kwai (Aberdeen), Heng On (Ma On Shan), Wan Tau Tong (Tai Po), and Kin Sang (Tuen Mun). The units, up to 13 years old, are being sold at only 12 per cent of their market prices, or up to about $250,000 each. The Housing Authority has also promised to set up a maintenance fund and the money is estimated to be enough to cover general repair costs for 10 years. On top of that, the authority has successfully persuaded two of Hong Kong's largest banks to offer 100 per cent loans to tenants choosing to buy their flats. Hongkong Bank and Hang Seng Bank will also offer mortgage interest rates up to 1.5 per cent lower than the prevailing prime rate to public housing tenants who choose to buy their flats. The list of other preferential terms go on. And when introductory booklets and kits were sent to tenants in January, it came as no surprise that the response was very good. Up to May 11, 22,300 families have said they would like to buy their own rental flats under the scheme. And 2,368 have already signed the sale and purchase agreement and become owners. Housing Department officials were also expecting the scheme to be plain-sailing until late last month when some tenants wanted to back out of the purchase agreement after 'suddenly' discovering they may have to take up extra responsibilities which they had never needed to care about when they were renting the units. About 220 tenants from the six estates staged noisy protests to ask for their $2,500 deposits back. Most are from Cheung On Estate on Tsing Yi, where buyers are told they will own 91 per cent - instead of 100 per cent as previously stated - of a public road leading to a shopping mall and a car park on the estate, with the remainder owned by the Housing Authority. Deputy Director of Housing Stephen Poon Sing-chi said tenants might have been misled by a department letter informing them about rates, liabilities for maintenance, damage costs, and the ownership of surrounding land and slopes. 'Actually, we had stated clearly their responsibilities in the booklets sent to them in January. But unfortunately some of them seemed to have overlooked the paragraphs. 'After detailed discussion with the Lands Department, we made several minute changes which are actually in favour of the buyers or the tenants. 'Technically, we just want to send a letter to tell them that they are now enjoying more benefits than before. 'I feel sorry if it gives rise to misunderstandings,' said Mr Poon. He admitted some tenants may need more education to be owners. 'Actually, their liabilities are no more than those for property owners in the private sector,' Mr Poon said. 'We have made so many preferential terms to the tenants just because we want to make the scheme successful and help them become owners,' he added. Even Home Ownership Scheme flat buyers are allowed to switch to the Tenant Purchase Scheme. The authority says it will return the five per cent deposit to those who bought into the last three Home Ownership Schemes' flats, if they buy their existing public rental flats instead. The privilege will be given to those living in housing estates among the 24 already chosen for sale under the Tenant Purchase Scheme in the next three years. But the authority will withhold the refund until tenants sign agreements for the new transaction for the rental units. Some home owners however were dissatisfied, saying it was unfair to have their deposit held without interest being paid. Authority member and Democrat Lee Wing-tat supported the tenants and said the authority was so financially secure it should pay interest to the buyers. Property consultant Michael Choi Ngai-min, the managing director of Hong Kong Property Services (Agency) who is newly appointed as a co-opted member of the authority's home ownership committee, said: 'In the private market, you could never dream of having a 100 per cent mortgage loan, or refund, or switching to other schemes.' The South China Morning Post posed as a buyer and called several local banks to inquire about 100 per cent mortgage loan. A staff member of a bank replied: 'It only happens in the heavens.' 'As owners, they should know their liabilities,' said Mr Choi. 'But in this case, I think the tenants' responses are understandable because they have never had experience of owning their own flats. 'In the past, all the jobs were done by the Housing Authority.' The Tenant Purchase Scheme was aimed to help fulfil Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's pledge to have 70 per cent of Hong Kong's families own their own homes by the year 2007. At present, about half of the families fall into that category. The scheme was pushed through the Housing Authority last December under considerable pressure from Mr Tung. It was first drawn up in the late 1980s by the then-authority chairman Sir David Akers-Jones. The initiative, which aimed to sell rental units to tenants at about 30 per cent of the market prices, was shunned by tenants and a later revision was banned by the then-Executive Council after concerns over management problems. History, in some respects, is repeating itself.